, BISHKEK, Jul 29 – Police cracked down on protests in Kyrgyzstan on Wednesday, with the opposition saying at least 142 people were detained in rallies against a "stolen" election in the volatile Central Asian country.
The swift response indicated that the Kyrgyz government would not tolerate street actions pledged by the opposition, which has alleged massive fraud in the landslide re-election victory of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev.
It was also the latest episode in a long-running history of political instability in Kyrgyzstan, an impoverished ex-Soviet republic which is home to a key US military base.
In one protest in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, opposition supporters shouted slogans such as "Return the stolen power!" and were about to march on the presidental palace when police moved in, an AFP journalist witnessed.
Protestors were dragged away into buses. Police also attempted to detain the AFP journalist, apparently confusing her for one of the protestors.
The protestors "were detained today for violations of public order. They did not have permission to carry out the march and the meeting in Bishkek," Gulya Kozhamkulova, prosecutor for the city’s Lenin district, told AFP.
Opposition spokesman Ulan Manayev said the march was a "peaceful protest" and put the number of people arrested there at 80.
Initial reports said 200 people were arrested at the march, but Manayev said that many people there turned out to be plainclothes police masquerading as demonstrators who helped arrest opposition supporters.
A total of 142 people were arrested at various protests in and around Bishkek, Manayev said, adding that other people were being arrested at protests throughout the country.
The number could not be immediately confirmed with the authorities.
The demonstrators were supporters of Almazbek Atambayev, the main opposition candidate in last Thursday’s disputed election in the ex-Soviet republic.
Incumbent president Bakiyev won the election with 76.43 percent of the vote compared to 8.39 percent for Atambayev, according to official results which are disputed by the opposition.
Western observers from the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe also criticised the election, citing widespread irregularites.
Impoverished Kyrgyzstan has a history of political unrest. Bakiyev himself came to power after a popular uprising in 2005 that ousted his predecessor, Askar Akayev.
Ironically, one of the key events in the 2005 uprising — widely known as the "Tulip Revolution" — was the storming by protestors of the presidential palace, the destination of Wednesday’s abortive protest march.
Kyrgyzstan has been frequently criticised in the West for its record on democracy and human rights, but it is nonetheless seen as being more pluralistic than its Central Asian neighbours.
A mountainous country that borders the troubled Xinjiang region of China, Kyrgyzstan is home to a US airbase used to support operations in Afghanistan, as well as a nearby Russian military base.
Bakiyev came to international attention this year when he ordered the US airbase to shut down and then changed course after Washington agreed to pay millions of dollars more in rent.